NGT Verdict: Facts Openly Ignored

Nandhini Sundar

Dec 16, 2017, 10:12 AM | Updated 10:12 AM IST

When the preparation work was being carried out for the World Cultural Festival, organised by Art of Living foundation at the banks of  Yamuna river in 2016. (Ravi Chaudhary/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
When the preparation work was being carried out for the World Cultural Festival, organised by Art of Living foundation at the banks of Yamuna river in 2016. (Ravi Chaudhary/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • The entire exercise conducted by the NGT expert committee smacks of prejudice and overlooking of facts.
  • The verdict is out. Art of Living has been judged guilty of damaging the floodplains of Yamuna during its three-day World Culture Festival held in 2016.

    The petitioner, Manoj Misra, hailed the verdict as a victory for Yamuna and hopes this will serve as a strong message to current and future offenders. One only wishes such ‘sincere’ intentions would be extended to book true offenders.

    The entire exercise conducted by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) expert committee smacks of prejudice and overlooking of facts. Not only were the facts deliberately ignored, the assessment of damage was unscientific, as well as false, as proven by satellite images produced and indisputable evidence put forth by Art of Living to counter the ‘findings’ filed by the expert committee.

    More shocking is that submissions made by Art of Living were not considered or assessed by the bench to gauge the truth of the contentions. Not surprisingly, the foundation issued a statement that it considers the judgement “erroneous and untenable”.

    While there is enough evidence to prove the contentions of the expert committee as biased and false, it would be fit to gauge the ‘neutral’ credentials of the individual members of the expert committee as well as the petitioner, Misra. More relevant would be the source of funding for Misra to carry the litigation against Art of Living.

    An even more interesting question would be, who in reality is the actual target of this litigation and mudslinging?

    Days before the cultural event was to start, Shashi Shekhar, chairman of the expert committee, had indicated in a letter to Justice Swatanter Kumar, NGT chairman, that he did not endorse the view of his team to levy a penalty on Art of Living as, in his opinion, the levy had no scientific basis and was an ad hoc figure. Interestingly, this letter was not brought to the notice of Art of Living or the public when the 9 March 2016 order of Justice Kumar was passed, where the expert committee’s report to impose a compensation of Rs 5 crore on the foundation was cited.

    The latest verdict issued by Justice Kumar ignores the facts and submissions made by Art of Living to prove the absence of damage and the erroneous unscientific report filed by the expert committee. The submissions were not considered on the argument that it was based on satellite images and “they are not conclusive or determinative evidence by themselves”. (Page 75/point 42 of the verdict)

    However, the satellite images submitted by the expert committee were accepted. “Their description and observations are based upon personal visit, photographs, Google images and other relevant data collected by the experts.” (Page 75/point 43 of the verdict)

    One of the main allegations against Art of Living was that the event was conducted on a wetland. The foundation had submitted over 50 satellite images to prove that the event was not conducted on a wetland. The expert committee chose a single peak monsoon satellite image to show that the area is a wetland.

    An interesting fact worth noting here, Art of Living was given merely 24 hectares of land for use to host the festival. Yet the committee had assessed and recommended the cost of damage for 170 hectares. These glaring fallacies are merely the tip of the iceberg, in what appears to be a deliberate trip to malign.

    If the verdict of the bench overlooks ground realities, the neutral credentials of the committee members as well as the key petitioner are equally questionable. It is an expected norm that committee members remain non-interested parties to the case they represent. Yet, professor C R Babu was found actively canvassing for Misra, claiming damage to the floodplains even before the assessment had been done by the committee.

    Professor Brij Gopal, another committee member, was closely connected to Misra, having worked with him on other projects, a fact concealed when the committee was appointed by the NGT.

    Babu is also the recipient of a grant of Rs 10 crore from Delhi Development Authority (DDA) for DDA-funded and Delhi University-run Yamuna Biodiversity Park. Babu’s biodiversity park programmes are also shrouded in controversy given that no internal audit has been conducted since its inception in 2003, despite having received significant grants.

    The icing on the cake is however the three committee members, professors Gosain, Babu, and Gopal, suggesting their own names for the “supervision of the restoration, management and maintenance of the restored flood plains” – a case of direct beneficiaries of the multi-crore compensation for restoration.

    Interestingly, during the World Culture Festival, the venue was also witness to many acts wherein the intent of sabotage cannot be completely ruled out.

    Yet another point worth noting is the presence of permanent structures that have been standing on the same floodplains for years with not a whimper of protest lodged. Whether it is the Commonwealth Games Village, the Batla House or the unauthorised housing along the Kalinidi Bypass, NGT has chosen to turn a blind eye to the presence of these structures; yet the floating stage and other temporary structures erected during the three-day festival invited the tribunal’s undivided attention and penalty levies.

    Even if these points skipped the notice of the NGT, it is certainly a wonder how they escaped the attention of those who are trying to accuse Art of Living of damaging the Yamuna floodplains.

    Nandhini is an editor for a design magazine, and has worked with major newspapers as a journalist over the last couple of decades.

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